At the beginning of 1990 I decided to buy a house. Partly, it was to do something different with my life. I was a software engineer for a small Portland, Oregon company. Having worked there for four years, since graduating from college, I was now asking myself what else I wanted to do with my life. Not that I felt particularly stifled by my job, or my choice of career; still, when I was in college I had envisioned myself either writing software for a living, or playing my guitar on the street in various parts of the world. Having taken that first path for the past few years, the second was becoming increasingly distant.
My college days were behind me, though, so I decided to proceed further down the first path. As was the trend on the West Coast, real estate prices in Portland were just starting their climb toward unaffordability, so it was a good time to purchase a home. Besides the equity from being a homeowner, the idea of being able to do whatever I wanted with my own house appealed to me.
But, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I should do some traveling before I planted myself. Though I wasn’t as rabid with wanderlust as I’d been in the past, I knew that I’d be even more so if I were stuck with a house and thus restrained from open-ended travel. And even my dad, a landlord and advocate of responsibility and financial independence, cautioned me against buying a house this early in my life. So I made a pledge to myself. I’d never been to any foreign country except Canada. I was 27; I told myself I’d be off the continent before 30.
Things were changing in the rest of the world at the same time that I was trying to change my life. The Berlin Wall had come down a couple months before, and the Soviet bloc was opening up. The news magazines reported on revolutions in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Each revolution would be followed a few months later by a National Geographic article that gave a picture of life during and after, with vivid, evocative photographs, and conversation vignettes with “ordinary” people. Travel articles were appearing about places that hadn’t been regarded as travelable before.
Meanwhile, I decided to make a smaller life change; getting a new apartment. In June I moved from a one-bedroom flat to a studio in Northwest Portland. Exactly one week after I moved in, I got a postcard from Tobey, a friend from college. She and I had studied together in the Scholars’ Program, and were part of its central clique – a group of neurotic, partying intellectuals. It was the kind of social circle that never lasts as a group, but spawns lifelong individual friendships. Tobey and I had dated briefly during that time, then became closer as non-romantic friends. We also became faithful correspondents, as we both drifted out of the Scholars’ Program, I transferred to an out of town university, she graduated and taught high school French out of town, I graduated and moved back to Portland, and she took a job teaching English in Japan, where she was now.
The postcard was written entirely in “Janglish” – the mangled attempts at English used by Japanese advertisers and trendy teenagers: “I think traveling plans. Maybe I will go Trans-Siberian railway Beijing to Leningrad, September. I don’t decide yet because cost up ($1430 – including train, 5 night hotel, guide, some food). If you think about travel, lets join us! For enjoy travel pleasure, together friend makes more better time.” She told me she had been so immersed in “Janglish” from living in Japan, the postcard practically wrote itself. “Lets Join Us” was an actual Japanese health club slogan.
My first thought was, “That sounds fantastic – I can’t really do it, but it sounds wonderful!” I hadn’t saved up enough money, there were too many things that needed to be done at work to take off with only three months notice, and I’d just moved to my new apartment. The three-year deadline I’d given myself was so that I could choose the right traveling time for me – or was it just to put it off?
Siberia had been one of my favorite National Geographic subjects. Going there, however, was an unknown quantity. When I tried to imagine what it must be like, I just drew a blank. I had no reference points; the only foreign country I’d been to was Canada. At least, of all the things I’d done in my life, this would be the most different.
I thought about more reasonable alternate plans. Perhaps I’d meet Tobey in Leningrad and travel with her around Europe in the weeks before she had to be in Paris. That would involve only a round-trip ticket to anywhere in Europe and a couple weeks. It would be within my allotted paid vacation, and wouldn’t be such an interruption of the graphical user interface manuals I was writing.
The Trans-Siberian plan as such, I finally decided, wouldn’t work. I wrote a letter to Tobey saying I probably wouldn’t be able to, and listing the reasons why.
Tobey read my letter and, having expected a “no” from me, took my “probably not” as a “maybe” and a sign that I could actually be persuaded to go. She wrote me back right away to tell me that she needed a definite “yes” from me right away, as well as money, if she was going to book Trans-Siberian tickets for the both of us.
It occurred to me that for the past few days, since formally opting out of the adventure, I’d been telling myself that some opportunity like this would come up again, someday when the timing is better. I realized that the truth was, it probably wouldn’t. Suddenly I had a clear, objective view of what I was giving up, and what my life would be like if I knowingly passed this up. My decision not to go had finally made me decide to go.
I’d finally resolved this series of ironies and changing plans. I found a fax number on Tobey’s business card of her English school, and faxed her a message the next day saying that if I could get the time off from work, I’d go.
Getting time off from work – that was the first hurdle. I figured I’d start by asking my manager for two months off, and work up from there. He told me he couldn’t give me an answer right away. The next day, after he talked with the president of the company about it, he said he could give me six weeks, and at the end of that I could call in and ask if they could spare me for another two. This was rather inconvenient for reserving a flight back, but I was overjoyed that one big obstacle was gone.
Tobey’s situation was as follows: Her contract in Tokyo ended on September 3rd. She had an offer to house-sit in Paris for Marguerite, a friend of the family, for a year. This would give her a chance to study at the Sorbonne. She had to be in Paris no later than September 28th to register for classes.
In the next couple of months I found out about two things happening in Europe that would coincide with my trip. First, the Grateful Dead were touring Europe at the same time I would be. I got a list of cities and dates of the concerts from the Grateful Dead 800 number. Then, when I was listening to the news on KINK one morning, I heard the West German government had just decided on October 3rd as the day of reunification of Germany. I’d be in Europe then! I would have to stop by Germany. Maybe I could go all the way to Berlin, I pondered; that would be the place to be then.
I got some books on China and Siberia. They were informative, but since I’d never been abroad, they gave me absolutely no impression of what it would be like in these places.
While planning the trip, I found that the more research I did, the cheaper things got. International flights, I discovered, were priced even more unpredictably and irrationally than domestic flights. Paying more for a one-way ticket than a round trip to the same city was the rule rather than the exception.
Initially, my plan was to fly to Japan, spend a few days with Tobey as she completed her job, and fly with her to Beijing. The difficulty was that we had to be in Beijing at the beginning of September, and August was the month that all of Japan took vacation. The absolute earliest flight to Tokyo was almost a thousand dollars, and got there two days before Tobey’s flight to Beijing on Pakistani Air (the cheapest she found). Tobey pointed out, too, that considering travel time between Narita Airport and her apartment in suburban Tokyo – I should count on six hours each way – I’d get barely a day to spend in Japan. I decided I’d skip Japan this time around. All told, that would save me at least $500.
I also decided to shop around a bit for travel agencies. One I found by chance was a low-budget but competent place run by a Korean man, which specialized in booking cheap bulk-rate flights to the Orient. There I talked with a blond-ponytailed agent named Scott. He found a flight to Beijing via San Francisco on Air China, for just over five hundred dollars.
That gave me an idea. I asked him how much it cheaper it was to depart from San Francisco. The difference was ninety dollars – much more than the cost of taking the Green Tortoise alternative bus line to San Francisco. And the Tortoise was something I’d wanted to do again since college, but hadn’t had the time.
For the return trip, I booked a flight with an overnight stopover in either Boston or Minneapolis. It wasn’t the cheapest, but it was fully reschedulable; I would keep the option of the extra two weeks.
The last few days before the trip were harried. Tobey and I took care of the final planning details – me sending faxes from work, she calling me on her Japanese phone card. I sent Tobey a cashier’s check for the train ticket. Although it was supposed to be completely covered by a partnership between First Interstate and Sanwa Bank, Tobey wasn’t able to cash it. Tellers at Sanwa in Tokyo would gaze at the check in confusion, and tell her they couldn’t do anything with it. This would draw other tellers, who would gather around, examine the check curiously, and not do anything. Only by visiting the main branch of Sanwa in downtown Tokyo and demanding, to the utter shock of the teller, to see a manager, was she able to redeem the check.
Meanwhile, in my never-unpacked studio apartment, I was extracting the things I’d be taking on the trip from the moving boxes, then repacking each box to be moved to my mom’s basement. I tried to pack as light as possible for the trip. The biggest question I faced was: do I bring my guitar? Here I was counting socks to save weight, yet I was considering having this heavy, bulky box at the end of my arm everywhere I went. But it also meant wherever I went and whoever I met, I’d have a guitar to play. My arm can take it, I decided.
The tension climaxed in the last three days. Friday, I put in an eleven-hour day at work to finish things up. Saturday, I moved all my stuff to my mom’s basement. Sunday I started traveling.
My mom drove me to catch the bus, and my brother Heintz rode along. We stopped at Tobey’s mom’s to pick up a couple things to bring to Tobey. As we drove up to the house I saw Tobey’s ex-boyfriend Mark, whom Tobey had told me to punch out the next time I see, working on the house. I said hi to him and decided to forego the punching. Tobey’s mother gave me a letter and some news to give to Tobey – that she was getting remarried.
We then took Heintz home. Before we left, he gave me the money belt he had taken to Paris four years before. He also gave me some cards with information to look some people up: the address of a restaurant where I could find a Belgian pianist he’d played with, and the phone number, should I make it to Prague, of Czech theater director a friend of Heintz’s had met. “This is your summer, Dietrich,” said Heintz. The torch had been passed to me.
Mother than took me to the Green Tortoise terminal – a section of sidewalk on southeast Grand Avenue. The Green Tortoise was the last survivor of the many hippie underground bus lines started in the late 60’s to give rides up and down the west coast for cheap. The Tortoise had eventually become legal; passengers no longer had to claim to all be hitchhikers when the bus was pulled over. Shortly before my trip, they became insured too. This meant no more “fifth gear rule,” which had allowed passengers to discreetly light up joints once the bus was on the open highway.
I’d ridden the Tortoise to San Francisco ten years before, and later, during college, taken it several times from Portland to Eugene. It left Sunday afternoon, and was the cheapest way back to school. Other than the ambient marijuana smoke that sometimes made it hard to do my physics problems, the Tortoise was the most practical and enjoyable way to go. There was a sense of community that I didn’t find on any other form of mass transit.
Since graduating, I hadn’t had the opportunity to ride it anywhere. Its departure times weren’t right for visiting Eugene, and to get to the Bay Area it took all afternoon and night and part of the next morning. This cut severely into my allotted two weeks per year of paid vacation.
I kissed my mother good-bye and boarded the bus. Eventually – the old bus always took a small eternity to do anything – we started down Interstate 5. I was in the open, foam-rubber padded area in the back, across from a young red-haired woman in a gauze dress, and her baby Augustine. It was a rather bohemian crowd on the bus, though I missed the old underground days when I could get a contact high and listen to someone’s new theory of relativity.
I talked with a woman sitting to my right about traveling. Since her last trip she’d been living in Oregon for two years, which for her was too long to stay in one place. While living in Italy for two years, she’d once taken the bus down the Adriatic coast from Italy through Yugoslavia to Greece, alone. The ride was bone-jarring, stiflingly hot, and took two straight days, with hairpin turns along the coast that seemed to go on forever. It couldn’t have been less pleasant. It was one of those experiences that made her yearn passionately to travel again.
For dinner, we stopped at “Cow Creek Simulated State Park,” the Tortoise’s little resort – a piece of hilly land in Southern Oregon owned by the Green Tortoise people. Half of the passengers helped prepare dinner, a rustic semi-vegetarian feast. The rest of us skinny-dipped in the stream and then warmed back up in the sauna. After dinner, those who weren’t in on the preparations helped with the cleanup.
I brought out my guitar and joined the other three or four guitarists. One of them, a man traveling with his girlfriend from Bath, England, started playing “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” an obscure song by the Irish punk/traditional band the Pogues. I knew the chords and I played along. This was what I’d hoped the trip would be like: traveling to places where the most exotic music I’d ever heard was commonplace, and playing it along with its native performers.
Eventually we made our way back to the bus, and started down the road again. It had gotten dark, and after a while it was time to try and get to sleep. I knew from my first Tortoise trip, eight years before on a much less crowded bus, that this would be difficult. And that trip had a normal amount of passengers, not the huge Labor Day weekend crowd on this bus. There was enough room for each of us to lie down, but not to roll over. And the bus, though well-maintained for its age, didn’t have the best shocks. Furthermore, with a 2 PM departure from Portland, you enter the winding section through the Siskiyou mountains around bedtime. Then there’s the Tortoise’s surprisingly frequent gas and rest stops.
I was putting up with it, though not getting anywhere close to sleep. My travel-enamored neighbor was having a hard time of it, though. She grumbled that she was too hot, she felt cramped and claustrophobic, it was impossible to sleep, and this was B.S. She asked me if I could please move a bit to my left. I couldn’t, really; a woman from Reed College on my left didn’t leave me any room to move. So she quieted down for a little while and tried to put up with it.
Then she sat up suddenly and started yelling. This is horrible, this is intolerable; all she wants to do is get out; this is the worst claustrophobia attack she’s ever had; she doesn’t have a single inch of room and she can hardly breathe, and that bitch on the other side of Dietrich is just sprawled all over the place as if she owns the bus. This is the worst trip she’s ever been on. After this tirade I was curious how this compared with the bus to Greece, but I didn’t ask.
The bus made one of its regular stops at a small gas station and market. Surprisingly, the Reed woman kept her cool and didn’t confront her.
A few minutes later the driver started the engine and asked if everyone was here. There was a space to my left where the Reed woman had been. Someone asked where she was, and someone else mentioned that the reserve driver had freed up a little extra space in his sleeping area. I quickly moved over to fill up the empty space.
“This is the last time I’ll ever ride the Green Tortoise,” said the traveling woman. “Never again. Never again,” she said over and over again as she simmered down.
Day broke, and we drove a few hours through the Sacramento Valley, then arrived in San Francisco. As we waited for the luggage compartment to open up, I talked with a woman from the front of the bus. Her name was Jill, and she was from New York. Pretty and young, but ragged looking in her well-worn hippie clothes, and with a New Yorker’s cautious reserve, she seemed like a strong traveler. “I’m going to Santa Cruz,” she said.
“What are you planning to do there?” I asked.
“Go to school.” She hadn’t preregistered for any classes at UC Santa Cruz, or even contacted the school, or been to California before. But that’s where she wanted to go. “Good luck,” I said as she left.
I spent three days in the San Francisco Bay Area, and was very glad to have a chance to do so. After those last two weeks in Portland, I needed some time to decompress before leaving the “civilized world;” this was my last chance to enjoy free time in familiar surroundings.
Also, I knew that there would be some essential things I’d forget in all the last-minute rush in Portland; this would give me a chance to think of them and pick them up while still in the land of consumer goods. I went to a supermarket in Berkeley and took care of the last un-checked items on my packing list: Kaopectate, Ry-Krisp and other non-perishables, and three packs of Camels to barter with in the Soviet Union.
I also had to pick up my passport from Visas Unlimited. They were the San Francisco company my travel agent had recommended for getting my visas to eastern bloc countries. Having mailed them my passport, I had to pick it up in person when I passed through San Francisco, as I had cut it so close for my Soviet visa. Four months was the usual recommendation to get one; I’d only allowed about a month. It was a close call for my Mongolian visa as well, which turned out to be the very first Mongolian visa the company had ever obtained.
I stayed at with my aunt Eunice in Saratoga that night. Eunice had arranged an Airporter shuttle van to take me to San Francisco International Airport. This was the one major arrangement I’d overlooked; there was no one else to take me the thirty-five miles.
The final, final packing took until the wee hours, then I had to get up deathly early to be picked up by the Airporter. All the events of that next day, the beginning of the big journey, were therefore colored by a stuporous fatigue.
Since this was the start of the most exciting adventure of my life, I felt obligated to mingle with some fellow travelers in the Airporter van, despite my urge to take a nap. I talked with a woman who had a friend who’d traveled to Moscow. Her friend had found drinkable water scarce, and ended up getting amebic dysentery, which made him gravely ill for several weeks. And he still had symptoms to that day. Easily alarmed in my tiredness, I decided I’d better pack water.
When I got to the airport, I fished out my collapsible water container, filled it about half full with a couple quarts, and stowed it in my carry-on small backpack. This would have to last me – what, three weeks? Four weeks?
I carried my set of luggage – a frame backpack, a guitar, a full day pack with a additional half gallon of water, and a sleeping bag sack containing the “overflow” from the backpacks – over to the baggage-check line. While in line I noticed a dripping from the day pack. I figured it was just the water I’d spilled when I’d filled the container. It kept dripping, though. I looked down; there was a trail of little puddles leading to the back of the line. I felt around and found the source of the leak: the whole bottom of my backpack was soaked.
I left the line, went over to a nearby cafe bench, and patiently started removing the carefully packed, waterlogged contents of the backpack. Most of my travel books were soaked through, and so was my Eurailpass. At least it was still readable. Apparently the water container was perfectly watertight except for the spout, and I’d packed a little too snugly amidst everything else. I took the bag over to a drinking fountain, wrung the books out as best I could, emptied the water bag, repacked the backpack, and hoped for clean Soviet water. Finally, with some embarrassment, I re-entered the baggage check line.
There was one more surprise before boarding the plane. At the gate indicated on my ticket, the sign listed the plane’s destinations as Tokyo and Shanghai. No mention of Beijing. Nor was there any mention of Tokyo or Shanghai on my ticket, or on my printed itinerary. I deduced, however, that it’s not likely that there would be two Air China flights to mainland China leaving at the same time. Talking to one of the Chinese crew members, in broken English and hand gestures, I found out that Beijing is the next stop after Shanghai.
Just outside the window, I saw a jumbo jet with Chinese characters written across it, and the Air China logo at one end. This was my plane. I was set.
The plane meandered around the runways for a long time before taking off. The air conditioner hadn’t yet come on when we were taxiing, and I dozed off briefly. When I woke up we were still on the ground, though at a different part of the airport. My feeling of fatigued disorientation would last all fifteen hours of the flight.
Until we left the Pacific coast, the features down below kept my interest. There was a bay with an interesting shoreline a ways north of San Francisco; I drew an outline of it and found out after the trip that it was Arcata Bay. After that, there was nothing to see outside. I wrote in my journal:
Several hours later, I’m flying over more of the Pacific, with a slight haze below me and absolutely no features of the ocean visible. I seem to remember that even on the Hawaii flight in 1977 I could see the ocean swells, but not now. I don’t know how long we’ve been flying; I took a nap earlier which lasted anywhere from one to four hours. . . . A couple hours ago I saw a couple islands, and got a picture of one – probably Aleutian; I’ll have to look it up when I can.
About 90% of the passengers were Chinese or Japanese, yet Air China made some interesting efforts to make the flight both Eastern and Western. Four in-flight movies were shown; two in Chinese and two in English. (One of the English movies was Tom Jones, which I thought rather counter-revolutionarily risqué‚ for China.) The two meals they served formed a cultural progression. Lunch, served on San Francisco-Tokyo leg of the flight, included a standard American meat sandwich and a Japanese bean cake. Dinner, which was between Tokyo and Shanghai, was half Japanese (a sushi-like concoction) and half Chinese (water chestnut-flavored chicken over rice).
I dozed off two or three times on the first leg of the flight. There was a lot more leg room than I had expected from an airline run by and for Chinese, and the plane was about a third full, so even at my 6’4” dimensions, I had no problems with comfort. I looked around for any American-looking people that I’d be able to talk with, once I felt like talking. I could count the non-Asians on one hand. Nearby, a couple guys that looked like American liberal-arts college students. Towards the front, a blond, pretty, strong-looking woman about my age in overalls, named Erica. She was almost startling to notice, not for her attractiveness so much as her conspicuous blondeness.
I’d never crossed so many time zones before. The sky outside was bright long into what should have been late at night; I was in effect experiencing a twelve-hour midafternoon. In between spontaneous naps, bored and woozy, I killed time: reading, watching movies, attempting to convey coherent thoughts in the journal. I also talked to an elderly Chinese man behind me, who was vacationing with his silent wife. His English was very rudimentary – but that was why he was talking with an American stranger on a plane, to get more practice. And I had no shortage of time to spend with him.
Finally, we started to descend. Through a low layer of wet clouds, I saw the green, hilly, well-kept farms of Japan. I was about to enter a new continent. Just before we landed I saw the runway amid the surrounding fields, then the airport. The bucolic surroundings of Tokyo Narita Airport belied its notoriety as the world’s most congested airport.
They announced that the stop here would be approximately one hour. The 747 landed and taxied to the gate. In excitement, I practically pushed my way to the exit of the plane, then hurried to the gate lobby. There, before me, was Japan. Japan, my first truly foreign nation – an airport concourse.
Actually, it was identical in most respects to any American airport: clean, very modern, plastic-scented, and cosmopolitan-looking, with all its international informational symbols. As a result, the differences – those few things that were distinctly Japanese – were all the more noticeable. There were special bright green phones for making international calls. Each had an array of buttons with flags on them – apparently you could dial the major country of your choice with just one keystroke. Gift and snack shops had items listed in both Japanese and English, and the prices, being in yen instead of dollars, had yen signs and were in the hundreds and thousands. Nearly everybody in the airport was Japanese, but they dressed just like Americans – only more conservatively. Men’s suits were blacker and grayer, and more ubiquitous.
I walked, then ran down the concourse, slack-jawed. From a snack bar I bought a cup of Sapporo beer. The cup had the Sapporo logo and a slogan in English: “We are dedicated to creating tasteful living for your enjoyment.” Not bad; better than “Lets Join Us.”
Another snack bar had apple pie. I felt compelled to do a comparison with the real article, so I bought a slice. It was wrapped preciously in rigid plastic and a doily-trimmed plastic film top. I took a bite – its excessive sweetness was reminiscent of a Hostess apple pie, but it had a distinctly different fake apple taste. The crust was all wrong, though. It was good, but it had a fluffy biscuit texture instead of a flaky pie crust texture. It certainly didn’t fit any definition of pie crust I’d ever heard.
There was an announcement over the loudspeaker that a Shanghai-Beijing flight was boarding. I ignored it; it had only been 25 minutes, so they must have been referring to a different Shanghai-Beijing flight. A little duty-free store had various liquors for sale. I hadn’t even started to accumulate a stock for the ride through Siberia, so I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels.
I went down an escalator to a rest room, having to duck suddenly to avoid hitting my head on an overhanging piece of wall. There was a definite scale difference here, I was noticing. The escalator wasn’t the only thing in this airport built for people much shorter than me.
There was another call for passengers on the Shanghai flight. This second announcement began to sink in, even though it had only been thirty-five minutes. I walked slowly back to the plane. A short distance away from the gate, a stewardess and a copilot were walking quickly in my direction and glancing about anxiously. Upon catching sight of me, their faces changed to surprise and relief, and they laughed, ran towards me, grabbed my arm and pulled me hurriedly back on the plane. I’d been holding up the whole 747.
As I sank back in my seat, embarrassed, the plane took off through the layer of rain clouds. The cloud cover was much more dramatic from above, with towers of cumulus against a blue late-afternoon sky.
Shortly after sunset, the plane began to descend. As we got low enough to see the ground, I saw a pattern: clusters of tiny strips of cultivated land, each cluster surrounding a central group of houses, and separated from the next cluster by a road or canal. This pattern went on, unbroken, for miles. I’ll bet each of those groups of houses has a hundred or more people living in it, I thought. It looked like the incredibly dense rural China I’d heard about, where every square inch of the land was used.
Although dusk was just beginning, under Shanghai’s thick layer of smog it was already dark. I began to see details of the airport as we landed. Just to the side of the runway was rusty junk – old barrels and pieces of heavy machinery. It looked as though someone had recently cleared them out of the way of the runway when they found out that planes would be landing there.
As we contacted the runway, I got a good look at the terminal – an old dingy cement building which looked a run-down county courthouse in some small American town. There was scaffolding around it, though. Perhaps they were renovating it to look like a new county courthouse. We got out of the 747 and walked across to the terminal.
Immediately, the air hit me – stiflingly hot, drippingly humid, and permeated with a bizarre, horrid, completely alien smell. The stench and humidity followed me into the terminal; there was no escaping it. I mentioned it to Erica. “It smells like Pennsylvania,” she said. “Coal smoke. It smells exactly like Pennsylvania.”
The inside of the terminal was lit weakly by old greenish fluorescent lights. This added a dreary, artificial feel to the place – I felt like I was in some sort of waterless aquarium. All over the lobby there were security guards: gawky Chinese teenagers wearing lime-green uniforms, oversized policeman’s caps, and guns. So this was China. My spirits plummeted. The destination of my trip turned out to be this. I wanted to go back to the Free World, now! It was a fight to keep my sense of adventure.
The last remaining Americans from the plane – Erica, the two American guys, and myself – got together to try and figure out what we were supposed to do to go through customs. The two young men were indeed students, I found out; they were going to live and study in China for a year. My heart went out to them. One of them looked like the young Bob Dylan – flying off to China instead of taking the hobo road to Greenwich Village. This could be worse, I thought; I could be them.
The lime-green guards pointed us downstairs. We only had to walk through a little course to the customs booth and hand in our declaration forms – that was all.
A sense of dark curiosity drove me to explore the place further. I soon found out, however, that I’d already gone to about all the areas I was allowed to wander, so back to the plane I went. Interestingly, the 747 felt a lot less claustrophobic than the airport lobby. I sat back in my seat, bleary-eyed, savoring one last spell of jumbo airliner comfort before subjecting myself to another hellish Chinese airport and – oh God – a whole Chinese nation.
It got better after that. The Beijing airport had only a slight coal smoke smell. In fact, it was a much more bearable place overall. The only unpleasant aspect was waiting forty-five minutes at the baggage claim in the Beijing airport, periodically glancing outside, through a set of glass doors, for any sign of Tobey. All I could see on the other side were hundreds of waiting Chinese. But I was used to endless, fatigued waits by then.
After my backpack and guitar finally appeared, I went out one of the doors, looked around, and there Tobey was. Halfway around the world, we’d actually made our connection, which seemed like a small miracle after weeks of communicating by one-page faxes and short international calls, and after our respective third-world airline flights. We took a cab into central Beijing to our hotel, down a beautiful tree-lined boulevard. (The fact that it was dark and we couldn’t see past the trees probably made it more beautiful.) Now I was starting to enjoy traveling.
But it was the hotel that made me feel like I’d just been rescued from a bad dream. Just inside the doors – which were attended by a doorman in a crisp white suit and red sash – was a lounge which was one of the most luxurious and tasteful I’d ever seen: hardwood tables, hanging vines, impeccably groomed staff, everything spotless.
I still wasn’t completely reassured. Sure, the lobby is nice, I thought, but what about our room, the place we would have to call home for the next five days? How many basic amenities of life is it missing? We registered and went up to our room.
Far from the dingy little Communist pit I’d prepared myself for, the room was clean, beautiful, and spacious, with all the comforts of an American hotel. In fact, it was pretty much identical to any American hotel room. The television was on, showing the movie Batman. I was disappointed, ironically. As far as foreign experiences go, even Tokyo Narita Airport was more exotic than this place. But I welcomed the luxury. Tobey had reserved it for US$80 per night – it would be a two to three hundred dollar place anywhere in America. After two Chinese airports it occurred to me that, when it’s your very first alien culture, maybe it’s best to get your feet wet gradually, instead of diving in.
I set the travel guidebooks on the air conditioner vent to dry. We turned Batman off and talked about what we’d been doing during the past year. For awhile, I felt perfectly lively rather than groggy. Eventually, though, twenty-five hours without sleep, except for short naps, caught up with me. By then, we’d talked enough that it didn’t seem at all like a year since we’d seen each other. We were two old friends in a sumptuous hotel room, and it was as if it had always been that way. And now, two queen-size beds were beckoning.
The next morning I got up, got dressed, went downstairs, and walked out the door to see China. Tobey was still asleep, and I couldn’t wait.
I walked down the wide, straight boulevard the hotel was on. It was warm, sunny, and smoggy. Several more recently built hotels lined the boulevard. In some ways, it seemed more like Los Angeles than the capitol city of a 5000-year-old civilization. Up the street, another hotel was being remodeled. I was surprised, seeing the ultramodern building they were working on, that the bricklayers and cement workers were doing it all by hand, with no heavy machinery.
Such was the paradox of Beijing. For all its antiquity, Beijing was continually making itself a new city. The wide gridwork boulevards had been put in by Chairman Mao’s architects, who completely rebuilt central Beijing. Now, the city was being rebuilt again as a center of tourism.
A block or so from the hotel, I came to an outdoor open market. I wrote in my journal:
Got my first impression at the market what an ironic shopping adventure it would be in this socialist worker’s paradise – cheap silk, lots of it. My advice to anyone traveling here – don’t bring any clothes; you can buy them here cheaper.
Another paradox. I’d had a vague impression that Chairman Mao had pretty much abolished private business in this country. I would be continually reminded in the next few days how naive that notion was. The vendors here sold all sorts of clothing and housewares. Some wares were quaint and handmade: silk shirts, scarves, and linens. Others, like the ski jackets, were slick-looking and obviously intended as cheaper alternatives to designer items.
It would have been hard to pick a more foreign place than China to be the first destination of my first trip abroad. Even the smog smelled different. Most everywhere I went there was an assortment of uniquely Chinese smells – most of which were completely unfamiliar to me, like the coal smoke. It must have been the combination of the vegetation, the particular pollutants, the foods, and the people. Beijing was a weirdly fragrant city, owing partly to its high humidity. The moisture in the air seemed to absorb any smell released into the air, and hold it suspended for anyone’s nose to pick up.
Tobey was up by the time I got back to the hotel. After breakfast at one of several restaurants in the hotel, we headed out for Tiananmen Square. There were several rickshaw drivers waiting outside the hotel. It looked like fun, so we picked one, showed him our destination on our map, then climbed in and let him pedal.
We had just overlooked a very clear warning in our travel books, by not agreeing on a price before boarding a rickshaw. At the end of the trip – Tiananmen Square, about a mile away – the driver charged us the equivalent of eight dollars. Feeling rather shafted, we paid him the money. We felt a lot more shafted a couple of days later, in retrospect, when we got a much longer ride in a taxi for around half that price. Later, we would hear rickshaw swindler stories from several people. I’m sure all rickshaw drivers in China aren’t scammers, but it just seems to be one of those trades that scammers are drawn to.
Tiananmen Square was a huge cement-brick plaza, scattered with monuments, statues, and the Mao Memorial mausoleum. The perimeter of the square was decorated with flowers and other decorations for the Asian Games, which the city would be hosting in two weeks. On the wall at the north end of the square hung a huge portrait of Mao. It was the same portrait that had been defaced during the student demonstrations fifteen months before, then restored. I didn’t even see the one piece of evidence still there of the incident. The huge obelisk at the center of the square, Tobey noticed, had bullet holes.
Catty-corner from Tiananmen Square was the Beijing Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’d heard about it; it was the largest Kentucky Fried in the world. It was in an old three-story building with a little red Kentucky Fried steeple perched on top. The dining area comprised all three stories. And it was convenient, and we were hungry, so we went in
There was a long line to each one of the twenty or so cash registers. The counter help had name tags with numbers instead of names. Behind them there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of chicken pieces and biscuits piled up on the vast stainless-steel slide between the kitchen and the counter. (No coleslaw; I guess the Chinese aren’t big coleslaw eaters.) After about a ten-minute wait, we ordered chicken and biscuits.
Of all the American fast food restaurants in foreign cities I would visit, this was the most foreign. It was like a third world scene with American props – huge, dingy, and very social, hundreds of Chinese workers and their families dining upon tables that were old and scratched, but standard Colonel Sanders’ tables just like in America. And yes, the chicken tasted pretty much the same as American Kentucky Fried.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at the Friendship Store. This was a huge five-story department store, open only to foreign tourists – although I saw a few people there who looked a lot like Chinese citizens. Just about anything a foreigner would want that could be sold in a store was available here: groceries, books, household furnishings, tailored suits, and on the top floor, a five-foot tall carved jade ship for sale for the equivalent of $150,000.
I stocked up on Tsingtao beer and Jian Li Bao, an orange-honey soft drink which became my favorite Chinese drink. (It was easy to remember for a Chinese name; I just pictured John Lee Hooker taking a bow.) The Chinese were as good at soda pop as any Western country, even if chilled pop often wasn’t available. Maybe it was because they had a steady market. In Beijing’s muggy, smoggy, throat-abrading climate, I was constantly craving soda pop, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. There was also Coke available everywhere; no Pepsi, just Coke. This was no coincidence, I found out: most countries in the world have a contract with either Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, but not both.
I bought one last souvenir – a book called The Truth About the Beijing Turmoil, written by the Editorial Board of The Truth About the Beijing Turmoil. It was an official Chinese government account of the Tiananmen Square student revolt: “In face of the frenzied attacks by rioters, the soldiers and policemen showed utmost restraint,” while “rioters . . . savagely murdered soldiers and officers of the of the martial law troops.” I was too repelled to buy it at first, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t get a copy.
We had dinner that evening in a restaurant in the hotel. Before the trip, we’d talked about exploring the city and looking for a restaurant whenever we got hungry. However, Beijing was not a place where one found cafes on every street corner. So, except for Colonel Sanders’, we stuck to the restaurants in the hotel, of which there were several. We were adventurous travelers, but not in a culinary sense.
The next day we took our first bus tour of the trip, to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall of China. The Wall was the high point of China for me, literally and figuratively.
Riding in the bus, we passed several runners and bicyclists on the outskirts of the city. They were obviously athletes training for the Asian Games: the cyclists were on real racing bikes instead of the ubiquitous Chinese one-speed clunkers.
The Asian Games preparation was also evident in the apartment buildings we passed. They looked sparkling from the front, as we drove past, but as we continued, they looked just as drab and squalid on the sides as any other third-world housing projects. Apparently Beijing could only afford to fix up the sides of the buildings facing the street.
As we left Beijing, views of wide boulevards and office buildings were replaced by images of rural China. Much more than Beijing, these were the timeless Chinese scenes I had expected, of old farm shacks and mule-drawn carts. And with a faint haze coming into evidence as we approached the mountains to the north, the land really did have the misty, silhouetted look of the old Chinese scroll paintings.
This was combined with austere rural shanties and relentless agriculture. A little wedge of land between a woods and a road junction, unconnected to any farm, had garden vegetables planted right up to the road shoulder. There was no such thing as a vacant lot here.
The first stop was at the Ming Tombs, a burial site for fifteenth-century Chinese emperors. I found it an unexciting tourist attraction. After a long descent underground by spiral staircase, all we saw were coffin markers, no buried Pharaoh-like treasure. The most memorable aspect of the Ming Tombs, for me, was the entrance building, a beautiful old hall with glazed ceramic trimmings along the eaves, and its charming setting amid shade trees. This would make a great picnic spot, I decided.
At the parking lot of the Tombs, a distance away in an unshaded area, we witnessed a strange battle between three competing soft-drink vendors. One had a trailer unit with three people working it; it was the only stand with a refrigerator. The other two stands each had one middle-aged woman selling bottles of warm soda out of a wooden box. They made up for their clear disadvantage by beckoning the tourists more loudly. “Hello! Hello! Hello!” they barked. When I looked in their direction they helloed at me louder, faster, and more assaultingly. I almost admired their persistence in the face of overwhelming competition, but I didn’t want to buy their warm soda no matter how much they yelled at me! I looked away and tried to avoid them.
A short while after we left the Ming Tombs, we began to see our first glimpses of the Great Wall, silhouetted against distant ridges. The road crossed the wall several times. Snaking along ridge tops, disappearing and reappearing from view of the highway, the wall seemed like several walls.
Our final destination was Badaling, the most popular tourist spot along the Great Wall. The village of Badaling, just on the far side of the wall where the road crossed under, was mostly a collection of souvenir vendors.
I bought a T-shirt from one of the vendors, which involved a peculiar transaction. There are two types of currency in the People’s Republic of China, renminbi (RMB) and foreign exchange certificates (FEC). Renminbi is what the citizens are supposed to use; FEC is for foreign tourists. They both come in units of yuan, with one yuan renminbi officially equal in value to one yuan FEC. Indeed, prices for goods and services are the same whether you’re paying in renminbi or FEC.
The only trouble is, there are some things you can’t pay for in renminbi. At places like the Friendship Store which sold items meant for tourists, only FEC was accepted. This, in theory, prevented locals from buying these extravagances with “their” money.
At any rate, I bought a T-shirt for ten yuan (US $2.00). The vendor pointed to the 100 yuan FEC note in my wallet and said something excitedly in Chinese. Without thinking, I gave him the 100 yuan note. He gave me the T-shirt and 90 yuan change in renminbi. Now, I suddenly realized, I was stuck with eighteen dollars of jinx money.
At least the renminbi looked prettier than FEC, and seemed more like real Chinese money. It was more wrinkled and softened from use than FEC, and had no English words written on it, as FEC did. But it was clearly less desired by the Chinese, even with its colorful scenes of noble Red Chinese industry and agriculture. And eighteen dollars is a steep price for souvenir bills. Remembering I had all this renminbi to shuck wherever I went, I managed to spend it by the time I left China.
After that learning experience, Tobey and I climbed the stairs to the top of the wall. This section of the wall was relatively new (built in the sixteenth century A.D.), well restored, and huge. The walkway had been restored to where one could walk about three-quarters of a mile in either direction. From the canyon Badaling was situated in, it was a steep uphill climb in both directions.
The first quarter mile of the wall was crowded with Chinese vacationers. Nearly all of them would go only as far as the third turret, at which they would buy a certificate stating “officially” that they had climbed the Great Wall. Past that turret, the wall was not crowded at all. We could run along the wall, on up to the highest turret on the ridge. We had the whole section of the wall practically to ourselves! Suddenly exhilarated, I sprinted most of the way to the furthest and highest turret.
Apart from its antiquity and historical significance, the Great Wall was one of the most fun structures I’d ever walked along. It was sort of an elevated highway, following the contour of the ridges, and commanding a majestic view on both sides. On one side I could see mountains and more twisting wall. On the other side was a panorama of the foothills and plains to the north. This was the view which the guards of the wall, long ago, would scan for Mongols, to secure the land against barbarian invasions. (Except for the guards who accepted bribes from Mongols, which was the great failing of the Great Wall.)
I ran in giddy delight, past a blonde woman about my age. I yelled, “Where’re you from?”
“New Zealand,” she said.
“Wow!” I shouted back inanely. She seemed surprised that I was impressed to the point of inarticulateness by her answer. As I ran past, I yelled back, for lack of anything better to say, “I’m from Oregon!”
Tobey ran with me. One of a group of non-Chinese men at the top turret shouted to me, in some variant of a British accent, “Don’t let her beat you to the top!” I didn’t; I gave myself one more push to the top.
On the way down I saw a Chinese sentry at one of the turrets – a modern one; instead of scanning the horizon for Mongols he was lounging with his feet up at one of the turret openings. He looked about 13. I’d never seen one of the lime-green sentries in such a kick-back mood. This would make a priceless photo, I thought – the smiling boy-cop lying back, framed by the Great Wall window and the Mongolian plane. I raised my camera up; he raised his palm, shook his head, and smiled apologetically. Even though I really wanted the shot, I decided not try and push it further. I certainly didn’t want to break his mood and make him have to act the policeman.
That evening, after arriving back at the hotel and freshening up, we decided to relax in the lounge. A Latin-American trio was playing when we came down, featuring a talented jazz guitarist and a female vocalist. I mentioned to Tobey that they looked like just the group that any minute would start playing “The Girl From Ipanema.” A couple songs into their set they played “The Girl From Ipanema.” We laughed.
I ordered Tanquerays and tonic from our attentive, sharply dressed waitress. Over our drinks, we talked about the day we’d just spent out in the “real” China. The contrast between that environment and this made me feel cozy, pampered, and guilty. I felt like a rich colonial trader in British Imperial times: drinking gin, listening to an exotic tropical band, basking in stolen luxury, little natives at my beck and call. Privilege and exploitation, hand in hand.
Apparently, we’d been having too good of luck in China; things had been going much too smoothly for such a notoriously unpredictable place. Karma seemed to finally catch up with us the next day. Granted, our list of things to do that day was a bit ambitious: we planned to go to the Mongolian embassy to get a Mongolian transit visa for Tobey, then rent bicycles, then ride them to Tiananmen Square to see Chairman Mao – his embalmed body – in the Mao mausoleum, then go to a certain Beijing travel agency to exchange our Trans-Siberian railroad vouchers for actual tickets, and finally see the Forbidden City.
We headed for the embassy compound first, an area of about eight square blocks, a short walk from the hotel. The streets in that part of town were narrow, tree-lined, and relatively free of traffic. It almost seemed reminiscent of a small town. Except that everything inside the city blocks was surrounded by brick walls and iron fences, and there were those lime-green sentries on every corner. The walls were imposing. They rose straight up from the edges of the sidewalks, and we’d have to walk the better part of a long block or turn a corner before we would see a break in a wall, or even any area where we could see over.
At the openings in the walls were heavy iron gates, through which we would occasionally see an actual embassy building. Big, gray, sturdy metal plaques on the gates, with engraved foreign writing, announced the Polish Embassy, the Cuban Embassy, the East German Embassy – the embassies of all these evil countries, tucked away behind walls in the heart of Red China. In spite of all the years I’d been absorbing liberal ideals, I now had a classic Cold War paranoia in the pit of my stomach. China dealt with all the “bad” countries in the world, instead of the nice ones like Sweden. And instead of pleasant glass and steel buildings with spacious lobbies, they had these resentful-looking, aging cement and brick structures. I expected to see Boris and Natasha emerge from one of these compounds.
The Mongolian Embassy was closed. Tobey’s travel agent in Japan had given her a schedule of the embassy’s hours: a couple hours on Tuesday morning, 1 to 3:30 on Thursday afternoon, and such forth. But the embassy had since then changed to a different random assortment of hours.
So, we walked to a bike shop near the hotel to rent bikes. It was a small, primitive-looking place, full of rusty bike parts and tools, but apparently did a brisk business renting out and repairing these old Chinese one-speeds. We were helped by an old woman who was about a foot and a half shorter than me and spoke no English. She brought out a bike for each of us. The bigger of the two was, not surprisingly, far too small for me. I indicated that the seat needed to be raised; that was already obvious to her. She loosened the nut on the seat post, pulled up the seat as far as it would safely go, and tightened it down. The seat still moved around a bit when I sat on it, so I gestured for her to hand me the wrench, and I raised and tightened it myself. Regardless of the language barrier, we had no trouble communicating in the language of bike mechanics.
Riding a rental bike in Beijing was a blast. I rode side by side with the city folk, who were commuting, bringing home groceries, and making deliveries on bikes – doing the same day-to-day activities that Americans use cars for. I felt like one of them, and at the same time, glaringly conspicuous.
Occasionally I’d see a man riding a flat-bed tricycle. These were used as pickup trucks; they would haul everything from bricks of coal to engine blocks on these. The tricycles usually had two sprockets in front, and no derailleur; the underside of the chain hung slack between the crank and the rear axle. Evidently, this enabled the rider to shift gears simply by picking up and moving the chain to the other sprocket.
We rode to the Mao mausoleum; it too was closed. Although Tobey could read the mausoleum hours on the sign in front – which happened to be characters that Chinese and Japanese have in common – she hadn’t quite read them right the day before.
At about this time I was starting to feel hungry. (My inefficient metabolism would be a curse throughout this trip; it seemed everything I did would be interrupted by hunger pangs.) Since Tobey wasn’t, we decided that she would use this time to pick up the Trans-Siberian Railroad tickets at a state travel agency (as per normal Sino-Russian travel bureaucracy procedures, she’d only been provided with a voucher for the tickets in Japan). In the meantime, I would get lunch at a place across the street called “Uncle Sam’s Fast Food.”
With a smiling painted visage of its namesake under the logo, Uncle Sam’s was a valiant Chinese attempt at an American-style burger joint. I went inside, and above the counter were faded back-lit pictures of a hot dog, a chili dog, and a fried chicken drumstick with what looked like powdered sugar sprinkled on it. The only listing on the overhead menu, however, was “Ham Sandwich – Y4.00.” I felt like I was in the old Saturday Night Live skit: “Cheeboiga, cheeboiga . . . no Coke, Pepsi.” I ordered a ham sandwich. I also ordered a Coke; it wasn’t on the menu but the bright red coke machine on the counter implied it was available here, just like everywhere else in Beijing. The sandwich was a single thin slice of ham between two pieces of buttered white bread. This was the kind of thing I’d scrounge up at home if I had no money or imagination. But this little place proudly served it up as their main entree. I was touched.
Tobey and I were supposed to meet at the entrance to the Forbidden City, at the north end of Tiananmen Square, in about half an hour. I got on the bike and rode in what I thought was the general direction of Tiananmen Square, and quickly became lost. I looked around for any non-Chinese person, from whom I could get directions in English, or any Indo-European-based pidgin. There were only Chinese as far as I could see.
Finally I stopped a Chinese man and asked him, “Which way is it to . . . Tiananmen? Tiananmen Square? Is it this way, this way, or this way? Tiananmen?” I gestured the possible directions with my arms.
“Tiaoueu?” he replied. What he said sounded to me like a T-sound, followed by a quick succession of vowel sounds. Apparently, this was the accurate Northern Chinese pronunciation of a word which may or may not have been “Tiananmen.”
“Tiananmen,” I repeated.
“Tiaoueu,” he repeated back. This is quite a language barrier, I thought. I couldn’t even figure out what sounds he was making, let alone what words.
We finally must have agreed that we were saying the same word, since he pointed me in a direction that happened to be the right one. I decided that the system for alphabetizing Chinese words was devised to mislead Westerners into thinking the Chinese language has any consonant sounds at all.
Forty minutes late for our meeting, I arrived at the Forbidden City entrance. Tobey wasn’t there. We hadn’t set a more specific meeting spot than “the Forbidden City entrance,” so I rode my bike up and down the street and sidewalk looking for where she might be waiting. I assumed that it was okay to ride bikes on the sidewalk, since I had seen a few Chinese doing it, and I thought I had pretty well picked up on the Beijing rules of the road:
1. Do whatever you want.
2. But don’t get killed.
3. Right of way is determined entirely by the size of your vehicle, if you have one.
In spite of that – I got a ticket. A Chinese traffic cop (in a white uniform) came up to me, murmured Chinese to me, and gestured with his arms that one does not ride on the sidewalk, one rides on the street. He then took out a white piece of paper full of printed Chinese characters, wrote some more characters on it, and handed it to me. I inferred it was a traffic ticket. He pulled out a 10-yuan note (about $2) and pointed to it. I pulled out ten yuan and gave it to him, assuming that was the fine. I still, to this day, assume that was the fine, although for all I knew I was paying him off. Still, I was glad to pay it and be done with it then and there; I would have hated it if he had summoned me to appear in Chinese traffic court.
Still no Tobey. I talked for a while with a man from Wales who was on his way to Tsingtao to work at the brewery, but had missed his connecting flight. He had four days in Beijing to kill before the next flight. “So,” he said, “I’m sort of an accidental tourist here.” I felt a touching, but by no means reassuring, camaraderie with him.
It was approaching closing time at the Forbidden City, so I headed in that direction by myself. From the gate opposite Tiananmen Square, it’s about a half a mile walk to the Forbidden City itself. In the surrounding park, I got lost and found myself in a playground. It was decorated by strange facsimiles of American and European cartoon characters. I gathered copyright laws were not an issue here in China. I walked on to a closed Forbidden City.
I was beginning to worry about Tobey, but I figured that if nothing else, we’d meet back at the hotel. Or at the bike shop, before it closed – I tried that first. The old woman was still at the shop. I tried to communicate to her that I needed to know if my friend, the woman I’d rented the bikes with, had been there. Unfortunately, after the long, frustrating day I’d had, my pantomiming ability was not at its best.
Finally, I got a pen and paper from my backpack and drew a cartoon. I drew a lanky stick figure, representing me, next to a much shorter bicycle. Next to it I drew a another bike, and a shorter figure next to it with rounded hips and breasts. Now the old woman understood; she ran her fingers through her hair and down to her shoulder. Of course, I realized – long hair; that’s the polite way to indicate a woman. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of the more genteel international symbol for womanliness. The woman indicated that Tobey had returned the bike and left.
I met Tobey back in the hotel, and she had some unpleasant news. First of all, it had taken her a couple hours to find the travel agency, which was why she missed our rendezvous. The agency was down an alley off a side street off a main boulevard, in a run-down building that looked more like an old college dorm than a business building, down the hall on the third floor. When she got there they told her the bad news – they don’t have our tickets. Her travel agency in Japan, they said, hadn’t given them nearly enough advance notice to secure them. Don’t worry, they told her; they’d probably have the tickets tomorrow. Tobey was not put at ease, to say the least, by “probably.” The train was leaving the morning of the day after tomorrow.
That was how it stood at this point. Tobey and I ate dinner and tried not to worry about it. This was exactly the sort of thing I’d been warned would happen when dealing with Chinese civil servants. It’s just a part of the culture, I’d heard from other travelers; they don’t expect things to be absolutely guaranteed to happen, or to happen at a specific time. I pictured the travel agents, after Tobey left, chuckling among themselves about another one of those uptight Western women who comes unglued when everything doesn’t happen just so.
But, we were already used to little things coming up that threatened to kill our entire trip as planned. If that happens, so be it. Whatever we did, wherever we ended up going, it would be an adventure. Past that rationalization, we tried not to think about it.
We rented bikes again the next morning, and rode out to the travel agency. They had our tickets! We were assigned different cabins, but we figured nothing in China was so set in stone that one of us couldn’t do some seat-swapping once we were aboard.
We also made it to the Mongolian embassy and got Tobey’s visa. They gave her one surprisingly quickly, and were friendly about it, which we didn’t expect in such an unfriendly-looking compound. And it was about a tenth as expensive to get it here as I had paid at Visas International. Oh well; I figured I had paid for the assurance of getting the visa in time. Here, I would have had no such assurance.
We finally saw Mao and the Forbidden City on that last full day in Beijing. Mao in his mausoleum looked well-preserved, although strangely discolored. I felt weirdly detached. It was hard to bring myself to realize that the man who made Beijing and China what it is today, who changed the course of history, who had been revered by a billion Chinese, was the man I was gazing at.
From there we headed across Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City entrance, and this time managed to enter without getting separated, lost, or ticketed. This was the palace compound of the Chinese emperors. Commoners at that time were forbidden entry under pain of summary execution; thus the name.
After going through several ceremonial gates, down carved granite steps and through a courtyard, we came to a great hall. Inside was a huge throne of gold and other intricately inlaid precious metals and jewels. This was just one of the three halls for receiving guests. Having just seen Mao, I was now looking at a symbol of the other side of China’s history.
Not having internalized a sense of Chinese history, however, as I had of European history from all my years at school, I was not as moved by it as I thought I should be. Still, in this island of antiquity and treasure in the middle of teeming, modern Beijing, I felt just as cloistered as the Chinese emperors, who would almost never leave the compound during their lives. When I left the Forbidden City, I was startled to realize I was still in Beijing.
Our last night in Beijing, we had Japanese food in another of the restaurants in the hotel. Since we had a 7:40 Trans-Siberian train to catch the next morning, we made it an early night.
All text and images ©2002-2004 by Dietrich Neuman.